HOMES that could sustain a small town and in theory almost meet the needs of Carmarthenshire Council’s growing waiting list lie empty – in some cases for decades.
And this is despite real progress made by the council in bringing hundreds of empty properties back into use over the last five years.
Councillors on a scrutiny committee were told there were 1,984 empty properties spread around the county as of September last year. Nearly two-thirds of the 1,984 properties have been vacant for two years or more.
Meanwhile, there are around 4,500 people on the council’s current housing register, and the average household size in Wales and England is 2.4 people.
The committee was presented with a draft policy about bringing empty homes – defined as a property liable for council tax which has been unoccupied for six months or more – back into use. The policy said there were 2,667 empty homes five years ago and that the aim was to bring the figure down from the current 1,984 to 1,500 by 2026.
Cllr Linda Evans, cabinet member for housing, said it was very sad to think that homes were empty given the wider need for housing.
“If a home is neglected they can devalue nearby homes and cause a nuisance for a neighbourhood,” she said.
But she added: “It’s not easy – it takes time to get a house back into use.”
She praised the work done thus far to cut the number – and the committee report said Carmarthenshire was in the top four of Wales’s 22 councils in terms of returning empty properties into use.
The new policy, if approved, will be shaped by six priorities:
- Target empty homes in areas of high housing demand
- Target empty properties to be brought back as affordable homes for people on the housing register and focus on council estate properties that had been previously sold off
- Support bringing empty residential units above commercial businesses in town centres into use for people that will contribute to the town centre economy
- Work with the families of empty home-owners who are in care, manage the properties on their behalf, allowing the income to cover part of their care cost
- Respond to complaints where empty properties are a nuisance to neighbouring properties or attracting anti-social behaviour
- Identify empty properties that are in a poor state of repair, are detrimental to the surrounding area and take appropriate remedial action.
Cllr Alun Lenny, cabinet member for resources, said there was a council tax debt of almost £1.5 million associated with empty homes and that getting people living in them would reduce the need for new estates on greenfield sites.
The council has various powers at its disposal to force owners of empty homes to take action but prefers to work with them, for instance making them aware of grants and loans of up to £25,000. These come with conditions.
In some instances the council will offer to lease empty homes through its social lettings agency; in others it might offer to buy them.
Another incentive to make owners take action is a proposed 50% increase in council tax for homes which have been empty for one to two years – rising to 100% for those which have been empty for two to five years – although this is separate to the draft policy under discussion.
Cllr Anthony Davies said he knew of two properties that had been empty for more than 50 and 20 years respectively in his Llandybie ward, while Cllr Handel Davies said he felt there should also be a policy on empty land as well as empty homes.
Cllr Martyn Palfreman said he could “see real palpable fear and anxiety” among elderly people whose homes were blighted by neglected empty ones next door. “I welcome enforcement action taken when appropriate,” he said.
Cllr Anthony Davies said: “I think the only thing that will work is to hit them in the pocket.”
Properties can be empty for six months-plus for many reasons, including being for sale and the legal process of probate.
The 1,984 empty ones represent just over 2% of Carmarthenshire’s overall housing stock. There is huge demand for affordable two-bedroom houses and single person accommodation, so many of the 1,984 vacant ones might not be suitable in these cases.
Cllr Terry Davies said a landlord he knew of with 34 houses was looking to “offload” them – Cllr Davies wanted to know if the council might buy them to avoid them potentially being used in the future as Airbnb properties. Cllr Evans said it was something that ought to be discussed outside the meeting.
The committee noted the report and made recommendations. Committee chairman, Cllr Deryk Cundy, described the draft policy as “ambitious”, and acknowledged the reduction of empty home numbers in recent years.